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Des Moines seeing steady growth in craft breweries

DES MOINES — In the past decade, the number of craft breweries operating in Iowa has exploded.

According to the Brewers Association, a trade association for small and independent brewers, craft breweries in the state blossomed from just 27 in 2011 to 107 in 2020.

The Des Moines metro alone will soon be home to 21 after Big Grove Brewery confirmed it will be opening a location in the city in spring 2022, according to the Des Moines Register.

Big Grove will join three other craft beer makers that have opened in the metro since late 2019: West Hill Brewing Company in Indianola, Lua Brewing in the Sherman Hill neighborhood and Kinship Brewing Company in Waukee. Another, the combination cinema/restaurant/brewery Flix Brewhouse at Merle Hay Mall, has been on hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic and has yet to announce reopening plans.

That may seem like a lot of brewers in the roughly 700,000-population metro. But compared to some other metros around the country, it appears there’s plenty of room for more beer makers in the capital city.

Colorado Springs, for example, with a metro population of 745,791, sustains nearly 40.

C + R Research in 2019 calculated the 25 metros with the most breweries per 50,000 population, and they make Des Moines — with 1.5 per 50,000 — look like a comparative beer desert. Portland, Maine, home of the Allagash brewery, which pioneered Belgian-style ales in the U.S., topped the list with 18 per 50,000. Cincinnati, in the 25th spot, had six — still more than four times as many as Des Moines.

“There’s a definite vacuum in the market right now, and people want to fill that void,” said Jeff Bruning, owner of the Full Court Press restaurant group. It includes the East Village’s Iowa Tap Room, a restaurant and pub that features an extensive draft list devoted exclusively to Iowa beers.

“I believe (Big Grove) is just the first of a handful that are coming to town,” Bruning said,

He said he is working with a couple of other brewers to help them open taprooms in Des Moines in the coming year, but couldn’t share details.

“I don’t believe we are saturated yet,” he said. “I think there’s still room.”

Des Moines’ comparatively smaller craft brewing scene may be a reflection of Iowans’ love for the products of big corporate brewers. Megan McKay, owner of Knoxville-based Peace Tree Brewing Company, which has a taproom in the East Village, lamented the state’s infamous Busch Light drinking culture, the butt of many a RAYGUN T-shirt joke.

Local brewers “create jobs, we create culture, we create things that small and big towns can be proud of, and the big brewers don’t do that,” McKay said. “So the more that we can get our residents to switch to local craft, the better it is for everybody in the long run.”

Bruning, too, bemoaned Iowa beer drinkers’ infamous affection for Busch Light. He emphasized that the culture around drinking craft beer draws a different demographic — one that’s willing to spend its disposable income on a quality product.

“People have pretty big allegiances to those brands,” Bruning said of the fans of Anheuser Busch, which is part of global conglomerate AB InBev. “But that’s not how craft beer drinkers are. With local it’s more… ‘I’m a fan of the brewery or the style.'”

Like Bruning, McKay said she expects the local growth in craft brewing to continue, despite the blows that bars and restaurants suffered from the COVID-19 pandemic. And she hopes to see strong revenue flowing from her taprooms, which in addition to Knoxville and the East Village include a third location in Grinnell.

“We’re all still trying to figure out what the crystal ball looks like, but it’s very different this year than even the past five years,” McKay said. “At the end of the day what I’m really proud of is to see Iowa beer grow. People don’t necessarily think of Iowa as a beer mecca but we’re making some darn good beer here.”

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